At the beginning of September the fourth International olympiad of metropolises ended in Moscow. Among its participants were young experts in chemistry, informatics, mathematics and physics from 45 cities and 32 countries. Some of them brought home a medal, others did not. But is it a tragedy if you have zero points? What’s the most valuable thing that you can get from the olympiad? Can you count on anything if all your competitors are significantly older than you? We discussed all these questions with the chairman of the jury of the Olympiad of metropolises Leong Chuan Kwek.
Leong Chuan Kwek is a Professor of the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, a Deputy Secretary General of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and the President of Asian Physics Olympiad.
I know that you’ve seen both the physics problems and the experiment that the participants were supposed to conduct. What are your impressions of them?
The experiment was very interesting, it’s on solubility of gas. Parts of it are a bit tricky, but nevertheless, I think that most students could do well here. What I liked most about the experiment was teamwork. In all the olympiads I’ve been to experiments are individual, as well as the olympiads themselves. But in the real world teamwork is necessary.
Sure, because most of the experiments are conducted by teams, not by one person.
Yes, by big teams, and each year they get bigger and bigger, they include both theorists and experimentalists. That's why I like this aspect of the setup. For the theory questions, I thought they were also very well designed, very difficult, especially problems №2 and №3. Question №1 was on cosmology, a lot of students did very good there. Problem №2 was on thermodynamics, and it was a bit challenging for some participants, there was some complex mathematics there, and if you didn't get it right at the beginning, you got the whole thing wrong. That's why it was tricky. But I think that the most challenging problem turned out to be the problem №3, it was on monopoles and dyons. Even some fourth-year university students would have difficulties solving it, I guess.
Leong Chuan Kwek on a tour around school № 2030
You took part in the enquiry on results and saw the works of participants. Did any of them surprise you?
Yes, a participant from Shanghai did. In one of the problems he managed to find a better solution than the one given. Me and Alexander Kobyakin, who's also a member of the jury, both went through his work, and then we had to check it with the person who had set that problem, and it turns out that it's true, the solution is correct. The work of this participant is very messy, but I think it's partly because of time limit of the olympiad. He could explain us his way of thinking very well, that's a big plus for him.
And how can you characterize the level of the participants in general? Did many of them succeed?
There was a small number of students who got all the problems right or at least most of them. But there were some who didn't even make an attempt to solve certain questions.
So what did they do instead? Were they drawing on the answer sheets?
Yes, that's true! They drew pictures, and some of them were very creative, but, nevertheless, we can't give any points for that! Anyway, I think it's a good experience for them, and you can't make an olympiad without hard questions. If everything is too easy, it'll be a disadvantage for very bright students, as their works will be the same as those of average ones. I think that’s also true for the Olympic games: the best athletes shine very bright, they break world records. In the particular Olympic games there're not so many people who do that. So breaking records is like giving solutions that are better than those of the authors of the problems.
Were there any problems that weren't solved?
And the experiment was also conducted until the very end, wasn’t it?
Yes. As I see it, the theory was a lot harder than the experiment. Nevertheless, I think that a lot of students were pulled up by the experiment. In some sense, the theory distinguished the very-very good participants from the good ones. I mean, sure, they're all good students. And the experiment really pushed them to their limits. So most of them got some points at least for the experiment, and some improved their results in the theoretical round.
What's the most valuable thing that participants will bring home from this olympiad?
I think, the most important fact is that they get to know other students who are equally capable. This experience may go a long way, because later on they may meet again in the universities or become collaborators, and this is really valuable.
Like forming this big professional society, right?
Sure, this big society, this big network, which generates a lot of harmony in the world. It's hard to, say, start a war between countries if you think, "I remember this guy, their president, we took part in that competition together, I know him very well, he's a very kind person!" And you can actually call him on the phone, "Remember me? We won the olympiad. Maybe there's a better solution!" So the most important thing is networking, as in the long run, it helps achieving the world harmony, world peace.
The second most important takeaway is the problems. If a participant can’t solve some of them, but he goes on trying, asks his tutors, his professors for help, he learns something. He learns how to solve a very difficult problem. Yes, he might get stuck, but getting stuck is not a big deal, in research we're getting stuck all the time. But if you’ve learnt to overcome the challenge, you won't get stuck the next time you get this question. It doesn't matter if you got zero points on this olympiad, you might get all of them on the next one.
Participants of the Olympiad of metropolises during experimental tour in physics
We went on a tour around Moscow school №2030. What were your impressions of it? Did you find there any ideas worth bringing home to Singapore?
First of all, our school systems are very different. In Russia you have all the grades, from 1 to 11, in the same school, and we don’t: students of primary, secondary and high school study separately. In both ways there're their own pros and cons. Your pros are that students grow up in the same school, in the same system. That’s also a con. In our schools students take exams and aptitude tests, so they can be channeled to different path. There're some advantages in that, too.
Nevertheless, the most interesting thing for me was the whole range of activities that school №2030 has. It’s great it not only looks into scientific and intellectual development of the students, but also into sports and art. So they get wholesome education, it's very nice. Some schools in Singapore tend to focus just on sciences. But we also have many schools that do have holistic education.
Of course, the school that we visited is new, so it has very good facilities. But having all the facilities is not everything. Very often I find that schools that are older and have less facilities make up for it with people. People are very important. I think, I could feel the warmth of the teachers in school №2030, and that's a crucial factor. This taste for self-education that a teacher can impart on his students very often comes from warmth, the ability to guide them with their growing age.
But at the same time, it's nice to have some facilities. For example, it's much easier to conduct experiments in physics.
Sure, having equipment is a plus. But if teachers don't have the equipment, sometimes they innovate, they overcome that obstacle. As far as I'm concerned, some of the best schools in the world are Cambridge and Oxford, but in terms of facilities they're not the best. Not all their facilities are top, sometimes they have very old apparatuses, but they know how to take advantage of them.
What do you think, will Singapore take part in the Olympiad of metropolises next year?
I hope so, but September is a difficult period for our students because of exams. Our school year starts in January and ends in autumn, November and December are school holidays. On the other hand, some schools don't have national exams, maybe their students will be able to come. I'll be happy if they do.
What can you say to the future participants of the Olympiad of metropolises? Do you have any words of wisdom for them?
I'm not sure if they're wise, but as I said earlier, I think that olympiads are all about making friends. Doesn't matter if it's just scientific tourism, it's ok. This friendship is very important, competition comes next.
You have to remember that the Olympiad of metropolises is one of the hardest. So don't get discouraged if you had been preparing rigorously for it and your result turned out to be worse than you expected, because the next competition you'll come across will be easy for you. Unfortunately, for many participants it’s the last Olympiad of metropolises, as next year they'll be at the universities.
But on the other hand, there're also some eighth graders here.
Yes, they'll be able to participate many times! But they're usually not the ones who can do all the questions, because the level of difficulty of the problems here is beyond the eleventh grade.
Participants of the Olympiad of metropolises during theoretical tour in physics
Yes, that's why they're sometimes sad, as they just haven't got to that stuff at school yet.
But of course, it doesn't mean that they can’t learn at home what's not covered in the school curriculum. So if they're interested in a topic, they can read very widely, they can even start reading university books, if they want to. A long time ago, when I was at school, I started reading books of Russian authors about mathematics and physics. These books were cheap, the paper quality was lousy, and they were in Chinese. In Singapore reading Chinese is a difficult problem, because our education is in English and all the subjects are taught in English, Chinese is studied only on the lessons of Chinese. So it’s difficult to pick up a textbook in Chinese and to read it, let alone a scientific textbook in Chinese! But with those books I mastered some topics, which were way beyond secondary school. And what was possible at that time, will be easier nowadays. With the Internet you can read lecture notes in all the subjects and watch online courses of the best universities, and you don't even have to be a student. As well most of them are free of charge.
The skill that will be very important for the next generation of researchers is informatics. I'm in physics, but nevertheless, I advocate that all students should be trained in computer science and do programming. Even when I choose PhD students, I always ask them: "How much of computing do you know?" If you’re good at it, I’m sure it's going to be an asset for the development of the project. So whether you do biology, chemistry, mathematics or physics, you need computing. And even if you don’t want to do science and are going to immerse yourself into society and, say, law, knowing some programming will help you a lot in thinking.
It puts things in order, doesn't it?
Yes, it helps to think systematically. The whole world functions because of logic, even legal systems are logical. This is almost an indispensable skill. So we encourage all students who want to join olympiads or who’s just interested to get involved in programming. Lots of them try to shy away from it, but I think it's no good! You'll need it in times to come. Of course, programming skills can get outdated, because it is very fast-progressing, but nevertheless, I think that the basic ones never change. Actually it's useful even if you're doing languages. Programming is just another language, the language of robots.
Which are the future, so why not get prepared ahead, right?